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Harper v. Fayette County

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

January 2, 2015

PERRY LEE HARPER, Plaintiff,
v.
FAYETTE COUNTY, ET AL., Defendants.

ORDER DISMISSING CASE, CERTIFYING AN APPEAL WOULD NOT BE TAKEN IN GOOD FAITH AND AND NOTIFYING PLAINTIFF OF APPELLATE FILING FEE

JAMES D. TODD, District Judge.

On August 6, 2014, Plaintiff Perry Lee Harper, who is incarcerated at the Fayette County Jail ("Jail") in Somerville, Tennessee, filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accompanied by a motion seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (ECF Nos. 1 & 2.) In an order issued on August 7, 2014, the Court granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis and assessed the civil filing fee pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a)-(b). (ECF No. 4.) The Clerk shall record the Defendants as Fayette County, Lieutenant Larry Turner, and Chief Deputy Tom Whitaker.[1]

The complaint alleges that, on July 12, 2014, while Plaintiff was attempting to check out a book from the book cart, Defendant Turner threatened to spray the pod in which Plaintiff and two other inmates were housed "[t]he sameway [sic] he spary [sic] C-Pod the week before." (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Plaintiff told Turner to make sure he sprayed the right one, and Turner allegedly replied that "he run the Jail and he do what the fuck he want to. And state that he would blow the top of [Plaintiff's] head off, and that it wouldn't be a fucking thing did to him about it." ( Id. at 2-3.)

Plaintiff submitted a grievance about this incident on July 12, 2014. He submitted a second grievance on July 14, 2014 that was addressed to Jail Administrator Francis Turner, who is not a party to this action. Plaintiff alleges that the second grievance form was never returned to him. He further alleges that Defendant Whitaker denied his first grievance.[2] That denial allegedly demonstrates that "[t]here is know [sic] kind of grievance procedure in this institution." (ECF No. 1 at 3.)

In the prayer for relief, Plaintiff avers that he is suffering from "anxiety, high blood pressure and nerves can't sleep at night can't stop eating my fingernail...." ( Id. at 4.) He seeks money damages in the amount of $250, 000. ( Id. )

The Court is required to screen prisoner complaints and to dismiss any complaint, or any portion thereof, if the complaint-

(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

In assessing whether the complaint in this case states a claim on which relief may be granted, the standards under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), as stated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-79 (2009), and in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007), are applied. Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010). "Accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, the Court consider[s] the factual allegations in [the] complaint to determine if they plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.'" Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681). "[P]leadings that... are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 ("Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a showing, ' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief. Without some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirement of providing not only fair notice' of the nature of the claim, but also grounds' on which the claim rests.").

"A complaint can be frivolous either factually or legally." Hill, 630 F.3d at 470 (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989)). "Any complaint that is legally frivolous would ipso facto fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Id. (citing Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 328-29).

Whether a complaint is factually frivolous under §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) is a separate issue from whether it fails to state a claim for relief. Statutes allowing a complaint to be dismissed as frivolous give judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless. Unlike a dismissal for failure to state a claim, where a judge must accept all factual allegations as true, a judge does not have to accept "fantastic or delusional" factual allegations as true in prisoner complaints that are reviewed for frivolousness.

Id. at 471 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

" Pro se complaints are to be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, ' and should therefore be liberally construed." Williams, 631 F.3d at 383 (quoting Martin v. Overton, 391 F.3d 710, 712 (6th Cir. 2004)). Pro se litigants, however, are not exempt from the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989); see also Brown v. Matauszak, 415 F.Appx. 608, 612, 613 (6th Cir. Jan. 31, 2011) (affirming dismissal of pro se complaint for failure to comply with "unique pleading requirements" and stating "a court cannot create a claim which [a plaintiff] has not spelled out in his pleading'" (quoting Clark v. Nat'l Travelers Life Ins. Co., 518 F.2d 1167, 1169 (6th Cir. 1975))); Payne v. Sec'y of Treas., 73 F.Appx. 836, 837 (6th Cir. 2003) (affirming sua sponte dismissal of complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and stating, "[n]either this court nor the district court is required to create Payne's claim for her"); cf. Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 231 (2004) ("District judges have no obligation to act as counsel or paralegal to pro se litigants."); Young Bok Song v. Gipson, 423 F.Appx. 506, 510 (6th Cir. 2011) ("[W]e decline to affirmatively require courts to ferret out the strongest cause of action on behalf of pro se litigants. Not only would that duty be overly burdensome, it would transform the courts from neutral arbiters of disputes into advocates for a particular party. While courts are properly charged with protecting the rights of all who come before it, that responsibility does not encompass advising litigants as to what legal theories they should pursue.").

To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [3] a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) a deprivation of rights secured by the "Constitution and laws" of the United States (2) committed by a defendant acting under color of state law. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 150 (1970).

The complaint does not assert a valid claim against Fayette County. When a § 1983 claim is made against a municipality or county, the court must analyze two distinct issues: (1) whether the plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation; and (2) if so, whether the municipality is responsible for that violation. Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503 U.S. 115');"> 503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992). The second issue is dispositive of Plaintiff's claim against Fayette County.

A local government "cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor-or, in other words, a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory." Monell v. Dep't. of Soc. Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) (emphasis in original); see also Searcy v. City of Dayton, 38 F.3d 282, 286 (6th Cir. 1994); Berry v. City of Detroit, 25 F.3d 1342, 1345 (6th Cir. 1994). A municipality cannot be held responsible for a constitutional deprivation unless there is a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation. Monell, 436 U.S. at 691-92; Deaton v. Montgomery Co., Ohio, 989 F.2d 885, 889 (6th Cir. 1993). To demonstrate municipal liability, a plaintiff "must (1) identify the municipal policy or custom, (2) connect the policy to the municipality, and (3) show that his particular injury was incurred due to execution of that policy." Alkire v. Irving, 330 F.3d 802, 815 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Garner v. Memphis Police Dep't, 8 F.3d 358, 364 (6th Cir. 1993)). "Where a government custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decisionmaking channels, ' such a custom may still be the subject of a § 1983 suit." Alkire, 330 F.3d at 815 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91). The policy or custom "must be the moving force of the constitutional violation' in order to establish the liability of a government body under § 1983." Searcy, 38 F.3d at 286 (quoting Polk Co. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326 (1981) (citation omitted)). "[T]he touchstone of official policy' is designed to distinguish acts of the municipality from acts of employees of the municipality, and thereby make clear that municipal liability is limited to action for which the municipality is actually responsible.'" City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 138 (1988) (quoting Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 479-80 (1986)).

Although civil rights plaintiffs are not required to plead the facts demonstrating municipal liability with particularity, see Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168-69 (1993), the complaint must be sufficient to put the municipality on notice of the plaintiff's theory of liability, see, e.g., Fowler v. Campbell, No. 3:06CV-P610-H, 2007 WL 1035007, at *2 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 30, 2007); Oliver v. City of Memphis, No. 04-2074-B, 2004 WL 3316242, at *4 (W.D. Tenn. Dec. 2, 2004); cf. Raub v. Corr. Med. Servs., Inc., No. 06-13942, 2008 WL 160611, at *2 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 15, 2008) (denying motion to dismiss where complaint contained conclusory allegations of a custom or practice); Chidester v. City of Memphis, No. 02-2556 MA/A, 2006 WL 1421099, at *3 (W.D. Tenn. June 15, 2005). The complaint does not allege that Plaintiff suffered any injury arising from an unconstitutional policy or custom of Fayette County.

Plaintiff has no claim against Fayette County for deficiencies in its grievance policy, and he has no claim against Defendant Whitaker for concluding that his grievance was unfounded. Inmates do not have a right under the Due Process Clause to an effective grievance mechanism. Argue v. Hofmeyer, 80 F.Appx. 427, 430 (6th Cir. 2003); Smith v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 19 F.Appx. 318, 321 (6th Cir. 2001) (holding that prisoner "had no constitutional right to... disciplinary or grievance systems that met his standards"); Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d at 300; Irvin v. Fluery, No. 2:07-cv-117, 2007 WL 5328577, at *2 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 11, 2007) ("[T]he Sixth Circuit and other circuit courts have held that there is no constitutional right to access an institutional grievance procedure.") (report and recommendation), adopted, 2007 WL 3036493 (W.D. Mich. Oct. 16, 2007); Mackey v. Carberry, No. 2:07-cv-43, 2007 WL 2479296, at *3 (W.D. Mich. Aug. 28, 2007) (report and recommendation adopted as opinion of the Court); Holloway v. Drew, No. 2:07-CV-160-MEF, 2007 WL 1175067, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Apr. 4, 2007) (report and recommendation); Robertson v. Montgomery Cnty., No. 3 06 0435, 2006 WL 1207646, at *2 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 27, 2006) ("[S]tate law does not create a liberty interest in the grievance procedure."); Robinson v. Hastings, 2006 WL 950185, at *4.[4] Defendant Whitaker did not violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights by finding that his grievance was unfounded. George v. Smith, 507 F.3d 605, 609-10 (7th Cir. 2007) ("Ruling against a prisoner on an administrative complaint does not cause or contribute to the [constitutional] violation. A guard who stands and watches while another guard beats a prisoner violates the Constitution; a guard who rejects an administrative complaint about a completed act of misconduct does not.")

Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Turner arise under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. See generally Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294 (1991).[5] An Eighth Amendment claim consists of both objective and subjective components. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994); Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992); Wilson, 501 U.S. at 298; Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d at 383; Mingus v. Butler, 591 F.3d 474, 479-80 (6th Cir. 2010). The objective component requires that the deprivation be "sufficiently serious." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; Hudson, 503 U.S. at 8; Wilson, 501 U.S. at 298.

To satisfy the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim, a prisoner must show that he "is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm, " Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; see also Miller v. Calhoun Cnty., 408 F.3d 803, 812 (6th Cir. 2005), or that he has been deprived of the "minimal civilized measure of life's necessities, '" Wilson, 501 U.S. at 298 (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981)); see also Hadix v. Johnson, 367 F.3d 513, 525 (6th Cir. 2004). The Constitution "does not mandate comfortable prisons.'" Wilson, 501 U.S. at 298 (quoting Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 349). "[R]outine discomfort is part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.'" Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9 (quoting Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347). Thus, "extreme deprivations are required to make out a conditions-of-confinement claim." Id.

Defendant Turner's threats do not satisfy the objective component of an Eighth Amendment claim. See, e.g., Pasley v. Conerly, 345 F.Appx. 981, 984 (6th Cir. 2009); Jones Bey v. Johnson, 248 F.Appx. 675, 677-78 (6th Cir. 2007) (no Eighth Amendment claim for prison guard's "use of racial slurs and other derogatory language"); Miller v. Wertanen, 109 F.Appx. 64, 65 (6th Cir. 2004) (a guard's verbal threat to sexually assault an inmate "was not punishment that violated [the prisoner's] constitutional rights"); Johnson v. Unknown Dellatifa, 357 F.3d 539, 546 (6th Cir. 2004) ("harassment and verbal abuse... do not constitute the type of infliction of pain that the Eighth Amendment prohibits"); Johnson v. Moore, 7 F.Appx. 382, 384 (6th Cir. 2001) ("Allegations of verbal harassment and verbal abuse by prison officials toward an inmate do not constitute punishment within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Nor do allegations of verbal harassment rise to the level of unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain proscribed by the Eighth Amendment." (citation omitted)); Owens v. Johnson, No. 99-2094, 2000 WL 876766, at *2 (6th Cir. June 23, 2000) ("The occasional or sporadic use of racial slurs, although unprofessional and reprehensible, does not rise to a level of constitutional magnitude. The petty exchanges of insults between a prisoner and guard do not amount to constitutional torts." (citation omitted)); Ivey v. Wilson, 832 F.2d 950, 955 (6th Cir. 1987) (per curiam) (holding that verbal abuse or harassment does not constitute punishment under the Eighth Amendment); Miles v. Tchrozynski, No. 2:09-CV-11192, 2009 WL 960510, at *1 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 7, 2009) ("Even verbal threats by a corrections officer to assault an inmate do not violate an inmate's Eighth Amendment rights. Verbal threats and abuse made in retaliation for filing grievances are likewise not actionable." (citation omitted)).

The Sixth Circuit has held that a district court may allow a prisoner to amend his complaint to avoid a sua sponte dismissal under the PLRA. LaFountain v. Harry, 716 F.3d 944, 951 (6th Cir. 2013); see also Brown v. R.I., No. 12-1403, 2013 WL 646489, at *1 (1st Cir. Feb. 22, 2013) (per curiam) ("Ordinarily, before dismissal for failure to state a claim is ordered, some form of notice and an opportunity to cure the deficiencies in the complaint must be afforded."). Leave to amend is not required where a deficiency cannot be cured. Brown, 2013 WL 646489, at *1; Gonzalez-Gonzalez v. United States, 257 F.3d 31, 37 (1st Cir. 2001) ("This does not mean, of course, that every sua sponte dismissal entered without prior notice to the plaintiff automatically must be reversed. If it is crystal clear that the plaintiff cannot prevail and that amending the complaint would be futile, then a sua sponte dismissal may stand."); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002) (" in forma pauperis plaintiffs who file complaints subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) should receive leave to amend unless amendment would be inequitable or futile"); Curley v. Perry, 246 F.3d 1278, 1284 (10th Cir. 2001) ("We agree with the majority view that sua sponte dismissal of a meritless complaint that cannot be salvaged by amendment comports with due process and does not infringe the right of access to the courts."). The deficiencies in Plaintiff's § 1983 claim cannot be cured by amendment for the reasons previously stated.

Therefore, the Court DISMISSES Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1).

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), the Court must also consider whether an appeal by Plaintiff in this case would be taken in good faith. The good faith standard is an objective one. Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 445 (1962). The test for whether an appeal is taken in good faith is whether the litigant seeks appellate review of any issue that is not frivolous. Id. It would be inconsistent for a district court to determine that a complaint should be dismissed prior to service on the Defendants, but has sufficient merit to support an appeal in forma pauperis. See Williams v. Kullman, 722 F.2d 1048, 1050 n.1 (2d Cir. 1983). The same considerations that lead the Court to dismiss this case for failure to state a claim also compel the conclusion that an appeal would not be taken in good faith.

Therefore, it is CERTIFIED, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), that any appeal in this matter by Plaintiff would not be taken in good faith.

The Court must also address the assessment of the $505 appellate filing fee if Plaintiff nevertheless appeals the dismissal of this case. A certification that an appeal is not taken in good faith does not affect an indigent prisoner plaintiff's ability to take advantage of the installment procedures contained in § 1915(b). See McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 610-11 (6th Cir. 1997). McGore sets out specific procedures for implementing the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)-(b). Therefore, the Plaintiff is instructed that if he wishes to take advantage of the installment procedures for paying the appellate filing fee, he must comply with the procedures set out in McGore and § 1915(a)(2) by filing an updated in forma pauperis affidavit and a current, certified copy of his inmate trust account for the six months immediately preceding the filing of the notice of appeal.

For analysis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) of future filings, if any, by Plaintiff, this is the first dismissal of one of his cases as frivolous or for failure to state a claim. This "strike" shall take effect when judgment is entered. Coleman v. Tollefson, 733 F.3d 175, 177-78 (6th Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 82 U.S.L.W. 3675 (U.S. Oct. 2, 2014) (Nos. 13-1333, 13A985).

The Clerk is directed to prepare a judgment.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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